I’m a little muzzy this morning from last night’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Party (oh yes, the writer’s life is a fabulous one) but one thing I definitely remember from last night was a conversation in which I was recommending Ron Charles’ hilarious video reviews to somebody. Since that person’s identity has now fled my mind, I thought I might use that conversation as an excuse to post his rather fabulous review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Unfortunately Ron’s taking a breather from producing them for a while, but if you’d like to see more you can visit The Washington Post’s Totally Hip Book Review page or Ron’s Youtube Channel. In the meantime, enjoy!
Posts from the ‘Media’ Category
As most of you will be aware, last night Julian Assange surrendered to police in London on sexual assault charges. Like many others I’m deeply perturbed by this development, especially given the pretty clear evidence the charges are weak at best and that the Swedish Government (which has been significantly embarrassed by the revelations in the latest round of document dumps) has interfered with the process underlying them.
For what it’s worth, my views about Wikileaks are complex. I’m not convinced total transparency is either practical or desirable. But by the same token confidentiality and control over the flow of information is one of the tools governments and other interests employ to control the public and manipulate public discourse and opinion.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying Wikileaks is an imperfect creation, but one of immense importance. It heralds a profound rewriting of the relationship between the individual and the state, the governed and the governing. By fatally undermining the capacity of the powerful to mislead the public it embodies precisely the values a free media – and by extension a free society – should aspire to.
This is not to say it’s perfect. Unlike the evidence of malfeasance and illegal action by governments around the world, I’m unconvinced much of the tattle in the diplomatic cables is valuable or newsworthy. But that’s not an argument against Wikileaks more generally: freedom of expression and a free media necessarily assumes ongoing debate about the limits of public interest, and commensurately, errors in judgement about those limits. A free media is by its nature a ragged and disputational creature.
Part of what makes Wikileaks genuinely revolutionary is its refusal to accept that there is a public interest beyond the right to know. By rejecting this notion they also reject the collusive relationship with power that undermines the effectiveness of so much media. This fundamentally alters many aspects of our public discourse, and will, over time, alter the very nature of society, both for the better and, I suspect, the worse. It is also, to my mind, an unsustainable and utopian ideal: the proper functioning of democratic society is incompatible with total transparency. But by redefining the limits of our right to know it creates a new standard to which free societies should aspire, and simultaneously provides a disruptive corollary to that freedom which will help safeguard it.
That our politicians have been slow to grasp the larger implications of Wikileaks is hardly surprising. I think it’s increasingly obvious we’re in a moment of historical transition, a transition which will be shaped both by forces beyond our control, such as climate change, and by the economic and social effects of new technology and global media. Neither our governments nor our political and social institutions are showing much sign of being up to either set of challenges, and our politicians are manifestly inadequate to both.
Here in Australia the response has been slipshod and cynical, demonstrating the worst aspects of the Labor Party’s increasingly reactionary and paternalistic mindset. Prime Minister Julia Gillard looked ridiculous last week parroting the American line that Assange was a criminal, and compounded the blunder yesterday with her assertion that the release of information was illegal because it relied upon an illegal act.
The exact seriousness of the threat to Assange is unclear, and will in the first instance depend upon whether British courts uphold an extradition order to return him to Sweden. What is clear is that a writer and journalist has been imprisoned on charges which are self-evidently connected to his work as a writer and journalist, and to his part in revealing evidence of illegal and unethical behaviour by the powerful. In such a context the obligation upon the Australian government, and indeed all people who claim to support freedom of expression and the free media is to protest as loudly and as vociferously as possible.
Having been involved off and on with Sydney PEN Centre over the years, I’m painfully aware of the difficulty of embarrassing governments which abuse freedom of expression. But I’m also aware that protesting does help, and that despite its statements to date, the Australian Government and Prime Minister Gillard may yet see their way to do what is right by Assange.
To this end I was one of the more than 200 people who signed the open letter to Prime Minister Gillard by Jeff Sparrow and Lizzie O’Shea that was published on the ABC’s The Drum yesterday.
Open letters of this sort always seem to me to be oddly quixotic creations, more symbolic of the powerlessness of those who sign than any real influence. But this time I’m not so sure. As of a moment ago there were more than 4000 comments, and the response was overwhelmingly supportive. That’s not to say there aren’t detractors, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether Assange’s newfound celebrity will prove a lightning rod for the changes that are clearly beginning to take place. As the events of the last two and a bit years and from the GFC on in particular have demonstrated, the rules that have defined our world for the best part of half a century are breaking down, and the relationship between the public and those in authority is growing increasingly poisonous.
This isn’t always a good thing – certainly the crazed, reactionary convulsions of the Australian and American political landscapes in 2010 have not made our societies happier or suggested our politicians and media have any real idea about how to deal with what’s happening. But it’s also increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the ground is shifting beneath our feet.
Having said all that I’d like to ask three things. The first is that you visit The Drum and read Jeff and Lizzie’s letter, which makes a series of unexceptional demands relating to Assange’s rights as an Australian citizen, and the obligations of the Australian Government to safeguard his liberty. As it indicates at the beginning, many of the signatories are not uncritical of the larger Wikileaks project, but the principles set out in the letter transcend those differences.
The second is that you take a few minutes to read some of the better commentary about Wiileaks. I’m going to suggest you begin with Assange’s own essays about authoritarianism, conspiracy and transparency. As anyone who reads them will be able to see, Assange is neither a terrorist nor a Cold War villain out of a James Bond movie, but a serious thinker with profound and revolutionary ideas about the relationship between the state and information. If the essays themselves seem too daunting I’d urge you to at the very least skim the analysis of their content on zunguzungu.
I’d also suggest reading three pieces by Guy Rundle, Bernard Keane and Clay Shirky, all of which offer interesting and provocative perspectives on the question (Rundle and Shirky in particular do useful work placing the events of recent weeks in historical context and trying to think through their larger implications).
You should also be sure you read Assange’s op-ed in this morning’s Australian, which was written in the hours before his arrest. Given The Australian’s behaviour and pronouncements during the Groggate and TwitDef scandals of recent weeks it may come as a surprise to many that it’s clearly placing its not inconsiderable weight behind Assange (though perhaps not as big a surprise as it may have been to many of its subscribers, who are no doubt choking on their cereal as I type). But I’m not sure it’s that surprising, not just because it’s a reminder of the The Australian’s more general mercurialness, but because as Assange himself points out, a belief in the importance of a free and unfettered media is one of News Limited’s fundamental principles (even if it’s not always demonstrated by their actions or drive for market dominance).
Finally, the third thing I’d like you to do is suggest things you’ve seen or read that add substantially to this debate. I’m sure the days and weeks to come will produce a torrent of coverage, and it’s be nice to aggregate – or indeed wiki – it here. So if you have links, bring them; I want to see them.
Just a quick note to say my article about blogging from the most recent issue of Australian Author is now online. It’s basically a personal piece, exploring the way working online has affected the way I think about both my writing and my life as a writer, but it covers some of the same ground Alison Croggon explores in her recent piece for The Drum, ‘The Return of the Amateur Critic’, which is also well worth reading.
As I say in the piece:
Blogging has made me feel as if I’m part of something. To call it a movement is probably going a bit far, but it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. Because like Twitter, blogging is only one facet of a much more profound transformation of the way we think about reading and writing that is being driven by technology, a process of transformation that isn’t just allowing a host of exciting new writers to emerge, but is actually giving birth to a host of new literary forms, and changing many existing ones, driving a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, genre and the literary, even the printed word and more visual forms such as the graphic novel . . . Read more
I’ve somewhat belatedly realised today is Australian Literary Review day. As usual selected highlights are available online, including the Pascal Award-winning Mark Mordue on Bret Easton Ellis’ Imperial Bedroom (which I’ve been meaning to try and compose some thoughts on myself) and a number of pieces linked to the election, of which the most significant is probably Christine Jackman’s piece on Annabel Crabb, David Marr and Nicholas Stuart’s books about Kevin Rudd. ALR Editor Stephen Romei’s Editorial is also online.
Reading Stephen’s Editorial has also reminded me that next week is the Walkley Foundation’s Annual Conference, which this year is focussed on narrative. Given it’s smack in the middle of the penultimate week of the election campaign it’s possible it’s not the most perfectly timed media conference in history, but it’s still got a pretty fantastic line-up. Featured international speakers include author and academic, Jay Rosen (the man behind PressThink), political blogger, John Nichols, South African activist and academic Harry Dugmore and NBC News Correspondent Bob Dotson. There’s also a host of Australian speakers, including Charlotte Wood, Malcolm Knox, Kerry O’Brien, Laurie Oakes, Annabel Crabb and Lawrie Zion.
I’m appearing on two panels on Wednesday 11 August, ‘Writing in the Internet Age’ at 11:40am with Jay Rosen, Crikey! Editor Sophie Black and Meanjin Editor and author, Sophie Cunningham, and ‘The Critics Speak’ at 3:30pm with Jenny Tabakoff, Stephen Romei and Sydney Morning Herald Literary Editor, Susan Wyndham. It looks like a fantastic program, so with luck I’ll see at least some of you there.
More information is available on the Walkley Conference website.
Given the turmoil of the last 36 hours, I’m guessing more than a few of you will have missed the fact that today marks the passing of one of Australia’s pioneering new media ventures, New Matilda.
Six years ago, when it began, I was pretty dismissive of New Matilda. It wasn’t that I didn’t think there was a place for a left-of-centre online magazine, but the early issues always seemed depressingly worthy to me. Whether I’d make the same judgement now I don’t know; what I do know is that over the last couple of years the magazine has really come into its own. Certainly if one wanted a demonstration of the way in which new media now consistently outclasses the old in terms of analysis and commentary, you couldn’t find a better example than Ben Eltham, a writer whose pieces have been distinguished by their clarity, intelligence and grasp of detail for some time. I’d say something similar about Jason Wilson, whose astringent commentary on media and politics has grown steadily sharper over the last couple of years.
That’s not to say I think the magazine was perfect. Charles Firth’s epitaph, ‘Why I Never Liked New Matilda’, overplays its hand, but he’s right to home in on how old-fashioned its model seems in 2010. It’s simply not possible for a website focussed on news and commentary to be as static as New Matilda. The continuing success of Crikey! demonstrates that it’s still possible to make the idea of discrete issues work, but Crikey! comes out daily, not weekly, and in the last couple of years their site has become a highly effective aggregator of other people’s content.
The problem is money. As Margaret Simons pointed out in a sobering piece on Crikey!, when it comes to converting eyes into dollars and cents new media suffers from precisely the same problems as old media. New media’s advocates tend to sneer derisively about the business model of the newspapers being broke, but the fact is we don’t have one to replace it.
That’s not to say there aren’t models out there. In the US several independent news outlets have developed viable businesses, some through mixtures of subscription and advertising, others by employing more innovative schemes (you’ll find a good precis of the situation in the US in Michael Massing’s pieces ‘The News About the Internet’ and ‘A New Horizon for the News’, both of which appeared in The New York Review of Books last year). And locally Crikey! seems to go from strength to strength. But the brutal reality is that we still don’t know how to make online media pay well enough to underwrite either quality or quantity.
It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by Australia’s relatively small population. Independent media outfits in the US have access to a market of close to 300 million people, to say nothing of the many in other countries who take interest in American affairs. Independent media in Australia has access to less than 10% of that number. That means that while costs are likely to be similar, potential revenue from advertising and other sources is only ever going to be a fraction of that available to similar operations overseas.
One solution might be to give away the notion that writers and commentators should be paid. Obviously I have a vested interest in this question, but I think there are good reasons not to give away the notion that writers should be paid for their work. That’s not to say the traditional nexus between word count and fee needs to be maintained. Indeed I’d suggest that by its nature a lot of what goes on in new media is better suited to payment on retainer.
The question then is one of revenue, or more accurately, funding. Like literary magazines, independent media, both online and in print, is usually at least partly underwritten by institutional and private benefactors. But that sort of money only goes so far, and beyond that the same old questions begin to intrude.
New Matilda’s editor, Marni Cordell, is making brave noises about rebuilding the magazine’s financial model from the ground up. I hope she succeeds. In the meantime I’d just like to salute her and her team for their work over the past few years, and say they’ll be missed.
It’s not often a literary story gets above the fold on the front page, but yesterday Bryce Courtenay managed it by serving up an extended spray at Peter Carey in Crikey!. Beginning by observing, “Peter Carey is a perfect example of . . . inane literary snobbery,” Courtenay goes on to deride Carey’s sales figures (“[i]f I’m a popular writer then Peter Carey is an unpopular writer . . . [i]f I’m a best-selling writer than he’s a worst-selling writer”), his education (“my education is every bit as good as Peter’s, possibly better”), the “self-perpetuating club” of government-funded snobs who force students to read books they hate instead of books they love (presumably the latter is code for books by Bryce Courtenay), before really throwing down the gauntlet by declaring, “unequivocally I could write his kind of stuff”.
Unfortunately the article itself is only available to subscribers, though as Stephen Romei points out over at A Pair of Ragged Claws, if you’re desperate to read it in its entirety you can always take out a trial subscription for free. That said, I’m not sure the full piece adds a lot to what’s above.
Courtenay’s remarks were prompted by Carey’s argument in both his closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and in his appearance on ABC 1’s Q&A that there is a connection to be made between declining educational standards, the rise of popular fiction, and the increasing triviality of public debate, vectors which, in combination, are eroding the foundations of civil society. Put simply, “[w]e are getting dumber every day, we are really literally forgetting how to read . . . consuming cultural junk . . . is completely destructive of democracy”.
Putting aside the rights and wrongs of Carey’s argument (for what it’s worth, I have sympathy with a lot of what he says, but the issues he’s touching upon are complex and deserve rather fuller attention than I’m able to give them now), what interests me about Courtenay’s spray (aside from how utterly self-serving it is) is that it’s part of a rather larger shift in the cultural landscape, and one which is connected to the sorts of issues I was discussing a while back in a post about the rise of genre.
Back then I was arguing that the retreat of the “literary” can be understood, at least in part, in terms of the loss of the critical vocabulary that enables us to make meaningful judgements about quality. That’s partly about changes in what and how students are taught, partly about a broader unease about imposing cultural judgements, and partly about the rise of the consumer/reader which is being driven by consumer capitalism and the manner in which the internet is breaking down traditional loci of cultural authority. In such a context it becomes very difficult to mount a defence to the argument that the real test of a book’s quality is its popularity.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I actually don’t think the test of a book’s quality is its popularity. Nor that I don’t think much of Courtenay’s books (and yes, I’ve read several of them). But I’m not sure that makes me a snob, and neither does it mean I’m riven with envy about the hordes of readers who throw themselves at the feet of the Bryce Courtenays of the world. Quite the reverse in fact: I have immense respect for many “popular” writers.
What it does mean is that I think there are many forms of literary expression and literary pleasure, and while I respect the skill and craft of a writer such as George Pelecanos or James Lee Burke, that doesn’t preclude me from dismissing Dan Brown (for instance) as crap. Nor (and I think this is the point of Carey’s Courtenay completely fails to engage with) does it stop me from believing that serious writing is important, both because it makes intellectual and moral demands of us, and because it enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit by doing so. I’m not sure I agree that the chatter of the new world, and the changes in our reading habits are necessarily or purely corrosive, but I do think the increasing antipathy to writing that forces us to think , and the celebration of writing that exists purely to entertain is. We all know the increasingly trivial and self-serving nature of the media is bad for public life, so why is literature any different? Because that is, in the end, what Courtenay and others like him are claiming.
Obviously I’m keen to hear your views on all of this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct you to Tony Martin’s hilarious rant about the odious Lee Child’s performance on First Tuesday Book Club a few weeks back. You think Bryce is bad? Wait till you see Child in action.
I’m not sure anything’s brightened my day up lately quite as much as the weekend’s news that Mark Mordue has been awarded the 2010 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. Set up in 1988 in memory of the journalist Geraldine Pacall, the prize is Australia’s only major award for critical writing or reviewing, and is awarded in recognition of a significant contribution “to public appreciation, enjoyment and understanding of the area or areas of the arts in which he or she is involved”.
I know Mark a bit, so it’s difficult not to feel pleased for him at a personal level, especially since he’s one of the world’s good people. But it’s also exciting because I’ve long been an admirer of Mark’s writing. Mark is – in the best sense of the word – a Romantic. In a time when people are increasingly uneasy talking about the transformative power of art, Mark embraces it, both as a writer and a critic.
There’s something salutary about being reminded that books and films and music matter, in some deep sense, but Mark’s writing goes one step further, and makes itself an expression of the same belief in the transformative power of art.
I almost always find the results both fascinating and strangely intense. Whether Mark’s writing about Nick Cave, John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road, or growing up in Newcastle, he’s always also questing after a sort of transcendence in his own writing as well. And that, to my mind, is what makes him so exciting to read, since in so doing he puts himself at risk. Which is, in a way, the most important thing you can ask of a critic (or indeed any writer): that they be prepared to demand the same things of themselves they demand of their subjects.
Anyway, I’ll stop raving. My heartfelt congratulations to Mark, and kudos to the judges for a great choice. And if you’re not familiar with Mark’s writing I heartily recommend checking out his website (which looks like it’s been a bit dormant for a while). And if you haven’t read his wonderfully unconventional travel narrative/memoir, Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, try and lay your hands on a copy.